Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer break down the Division 1A championship game, Basic's back-to-back upsets and Arbor View's chances against Bishop Gorman.
This is a familiar spot for the Moapa Valley High football team.
When it plays Desert Pines at 3 p.m. Saturday at Bishop Gorman for the Division I-A state championship, the Pirates will be playing for the program’s 16th title dating back to the 1940s. Moapa Valley coach Brent Lewis will be part of the state game for the 12th time, starting in 1984 when he was a junior backup quarterback for the Pirates.
Most of the Moapa Valley players grew up in Overton, Logandale and Moapa, tight-knit communities of about 8,000 combined people, 60 miles north of Las Vegas. They’ve been in the stands for past state championship games, watching older siblings or children from their block, and dreaming about the day when they’d be on the field representing their area against the rest of Nevada.
Starting in 2006, Moapa Valley played in seven straight state championship games. That experience, everything from knowing what to expect in a big game to preparing on championship week, arguably gives them an advantage.
But the Moapa Valley advantage comes with an asterisk. More times than not, it’s the Pirates who have lost in the championship game.
They were state runners-up four straight seasons from 2009-12, lost in last year’s state semifinals when they were undefeated, and in 2006 fell by four points to rival Virgin Valley in the championship game. Lewis is 2-8 as a coach in state games, including 2001 when he was the Moapa Valley offensive coordinator.
“We have choked in the big game. We haven’t got it done. It is as simple as that,” Lewis said. “Just showing up doesn’t mean you (are going to win). You have to perform and we haven’t got it done when it counted the most.”
While Desert Pines, which opened in 1999, is playing in the state championship game for just the second time, the Jaguars won’t be intimidated. Some are part of the Desert Pines basketball program, which won the state championship in 2013 and lost in the state semifinals the following year. Others were on a state champion relay team last spring in track.
“It gives them an advantage, but at the end of the day, it’s about making plays,” Desert Pines coach Tico Rodriguez said. “The team who makes the most plays is going to win.”
Moapa Valley (12-0) enters undefeated and handed Desert Pines (11-1) its lone loss of the season. But Desert Pines led by three points at halftime and is playing its best football of the season. The Jaguars beat defending state champion Faith Lutheran and Northern Nevada’s Churchill County High in consecutive weeks to reach the championship game, eliminating two of the classification's better teams, and eliminating them in road games.
In last week’s state semifinals, Desert Pines held Churchill County scoreless, including a goal-line stand to change the momentum of the game. It also had a goal-line stand in the final minutes against Faith Lutheran two weeks ago to secure the win.
“We have definitely matured from the start of the season,” Rodriguez said. “We are playing at a high level right now. But so is Moapa Valley.”
Desert Pines’ strength is one of Moapa Valley’s weakness. The Jaguars have one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the state regardless of classification, including a pair of all-league performers on the offensive line in junior Sam Poutasi (6-foot-5, 285 pounds) and Natron Naki (6-foot-2, 285 pounds). And defensively, end Anthony Smith (6-foot-3, 247 pounds) has 16 sacks, constantly getting into the offensive backfield during the past two games.
The Desert Pines offense is led by a pair of sophomores in quarterback Markell Grayson and running back Isaiah Morris, and senior wide receivers Jon McCoy and Andre Watts. Morris has rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns, McCoy has produced big plays in the return game all season, and together the group is believed to be have athleticism that could give Moapa Valley fits.
Moapa Valley, though, might have the better skilled-position players in junior R.J. Hubert and senior Cole Mulcock at wide receiver. Mulcock has 54 catches for 1,065 yards and 12 touchdowns, and Hubert has 807 yards and 13 touchdowns.
That gives quarterback Zach Hymas, a 6-foot-3 pocket passer with scholarship offers from Weber State and Southern Utah, plenty of options to attack the Desert Pines defense.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Hubert said of claims Desert Pines has more athletic players. “We have athletic kids just like they do. I’m not the lone standout on the team. There are more kids than me. We know they are a worthy opponent and we know we can compete with them.”
Hubert had three touchdowns in the second half Sept. 13 against Desert Pines in the regular season, helping the Pirates outscore Desert Pines 30-14 in the second half. Moapa Valley also beat Desert Pines last season.
“They are the most skilled set of receivers we have played all year, probably best in the state other than Gorman,” Rodriguez said. “They are scary good. It’s definitely going to be a challenge and we have kids excited about the challenge.”